Research: Differences in Marriage and Romantic Involvement among Older African Americans

In “Gender differences in marriage, romantic involvement, and desire for romantic involvement among older African Americans (PLOS ONE, May 2020),”  Bloustein School Associate Professor Dawne M. Mouzon and colleagues look at the dearth of research on the correlates of marriage and romantic involvement among older African Americans despite a wealth of research on marriage. This is an important omission because although the marriage decline is universal, African Americans show the steepest decline in marriage rates.

Being single in older age has social and health consequences. Among older adults who live alone, African Americans (33%) are twice as likely as whites (16%) to live below the poverty line. In addition to their greater risk of material deprivation, singlehood among older African Americans has important health implications, especially for women.

For example, although Black men have lower life expectancy than Black women, Black women have higher rates of disability than White women and both Black and White men. The increasing proportion of unmarried older African American women is at high risk for material deprivation and poorer health status. Given that spouses conventionally provide caregiving in older age, the increasing proportion of older African American women living outside of the context of marriage, cohabitation, and romantic relationships will require creative public policy solutions.

In the article, Mouzon and colleagues found that four in 10 older African Americans are either married or cohabiting, 11% are unmarried but romantically involved, 9.5% are unmarried and not romantically involved but open to the possibility of a relationship, and 38% neither have nor desire a romantic involvement. Multinomial logistic regression analysis found that more older African American men than women are married or cohabiting, a gap that increases with advanced age. Across all age groups, African American women are more likely than older African American men to report that they neither have nor desire a romantic relationship.

Findings support social exchange theories and the importance of an unbalanced sex ratio. Furthermore, the results suggest that singlehood among older African Americans (especially women) is not necessarily an involuntary status. Nonetheless, this group is at higher risk of economic and health problems as they age.